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 A review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star, 25 January 1970,

of a book:

HAMLET'S MILL: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time,

by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend.

Boston: Gambit, Inc., 19xx



"Delving Into 'Linguistic Archaeology"



HAMLET'S MILL: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time. 

By Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend.  Gambit, Inc., Bostqn. 505 pages. $10.


   Just 40 years ago, my undergraduate tutor told me of a new member of the faculty at MIT, a young historian of science, recently arrived from Rome, who had "read everything."  Now, a generation later, Giorgio de Santillana still seems to have read everything.  But, recently, his reading has taken strange paths, delving into the endless labyrinths of folklore, astrology, and what might be called "linguistic archaeology."


   This last subject is concerned with the evidence to be found in etymology and forgotten metaphors of men's thoughts and human society in the prehistoric period.  Thus, for example, the expression "the four corners of the earth" takes us back, in this book, to a period at least 7,000 years ago (that is, 3,000 years before the invention of writing), when the "world" was not a terrestrial globe but was regarded as a flat square plane (what astronomers call "the plane of the ecliptic"), whose four corners cut the zodiac band of "fixed" stars in four points of the 12 constellations which make up the whole circular band of the zodiac.


   Those ancient peoples, looking at the sky with themselves at the center, saw the sun pass through the whole band in the course of the year, reaching the "four corners" at the points we call the two equinoxes (March 21 and Sept. 22) and the two solstices (June 21 and Dec. 21).  According to this book, our very remote ancestors not only knew these things, but they also knew that these four corners are not fixed forever in the same points relative to the constellations of the zodiac but move slowly backward, only 1 degree each 72 years, toward the circling sun, so that the vernal equinox on March 21 (which was New Year's Day until Caesar reformed the calendar in 45 B.C.) is now in Pisces, after being in Aries for about 2200 years before 7 B.C. and was in Taurus from about 4400 B.C. to about 2200 B.C. Thus at "Time Zero," when men first recognized these things, about 5000 B.C., the vernal equinox was in Gemini.


   The Christian era, since Christ was born, about Aug. 7 B.C., thus coincides exactly with the reign of the Fish and not with the Ram, because the Old New Year's Day sun moved from Aries into Pisces in that very year. And Virgil is regarded as a prophet of Christ, serving, for example, as Dante's guide through Hell and Purgatory in "The Divine Comedy," because he, seeing the approach of Pisces, wrote, before the birth of Christ, "A great new order of centuries in now being born."


Giorgio de Santillana - author

Giorgio de Santillana

   The discovery of the Precession of the Equinoxes is usually attributed to the Greek, Hipparchus, about 127 B.C. The argument in this book that men knew of it 5000 years earlier will astound most readers.  This is equally true of some of its other ideas: (1) That the chief evidence of this knowledge survives in folk tales; (2) that this knowledge was practically world-wide, and can be seen in the folklore and symbols of the ancient Aztecs, tribal American lndians, Polynesians, African Negroes, or Siberian Shamnaism as clearly as in the surviving written evidence from Ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Archaic Greece, or traditional Hinduism; and (3) that we today have been unable to see the meaning of this evidence from our mistaken 19th century belief that man's spiritual and intellectual development moves in only one direction, forward, and is unlikely to retrograde on a general or worldwide basis.


   There can be little doubt that these ideas are correct, including the last one.  The great astronomical knowledge of 5000 or 4000 B.C. was largely lost by 1000 B.C. and has had to be rediscovered.  But we refuse to see that the astronomical knowledge shown by such things as the orientation of the Great Pyramid (aboot 2350 B.C.) or of Stonehenge (about 1650 B.C.) are from the late stages of a decreasing body of pre-literate astronomical knowledge, and we persist in regarding them as precocious examples of a growing body of our own literate scientific tradition. The efforts of these authors to show us an aspect of this older, and very great, prehistoric esoteric tradition are very much worthwhile.

Hertha von Dechend - author

Hertha von Dechend

Unfortunately, this volume is unlikely to persuade doubters, chiefly because it is badly organized and badly written. The main arguments should have been stated clearly at the outset, and the evidence, including that derived from folklore, should then have been mobilized to support the arguments.  Instead, the arguments emerge only by implication, and not in the early chapters, where they are buried and confused by a flood of stories from worldwide folklore fragments.


   The scholarship of the authors is beyond question: it is shown in 33 appendices covering a hundred pages and in a bibliography in five languages covering 30 pages.  But the purpose of the book is largely defeated, not by its scholarship but by its confused presentation.  Who could guess what the book is about from its title or subtitle? The chapter headings and the language of the text are similarly allusive and poetical.  But a scientific argument has to be written in the clearest prose possible, with the thesis presented and precision. No theses such as these can emerge by implication nor be proved by even the most copious cumulation of ambiguous stories from folklore. It might be suggested to any puzzled reader of this volume that he will find a lucid explanation of what it is all about in the first chapter of a wonderful, if somewhat older, book: Lancelot Hogben's "Science for the Citizen" (Knopf, 1938).


   There Is a second weakness in this volume: Its authors are so obsessed with the precession of the equinoxes that they refuse to see that primitive thinkers had other worries.  They go so far as to write (p. 56), "Archaic thought is cosmological thought first and last," and, in several places, they reject the widely accepted idea that much of archaic thought and symbolism is concerned with fertility.


   In this they are in grave error and simply reveal their inability to get inside the minds of archaic men.  Such men were worried by all the cyclical periodicies of nature: the day, the month (including their wife's menstrual cycle), the seasons (especially the retreat of the sun in December), the year, the succession of generations, and the precession of the equinoxes. The last was only the longest of these cycles; it was not the greatest worry. But all these cycles must be studied and understood if we are to comprehend the fears and insecurities of archaic men, who, lacking all conception of rules and laws of inanimate nature, saw all its periodicies as the consequence of the activities of gods and spirits on whom men were almost helplessly dependent.


Carroll Quigley is professor of the history of civilization at Georgetown University and author of "Tragedy and Hope: The World [in] Our Time." (Macmillan,)


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